Heads, Tails or Edge

Date: 1,988,927 A.D. (Gregorian), PW 1,336 (Shango), NA 135 (Qareen)
Location: Ringrail 1 Project

1

Government jobs around there were the best, apart from one annoying little factor – they’d never let you teleport.

I could deal with this, but it still marred my view of the job. Instead of nearly hopping from one town to another, we had to engage in what employees called The Rush – and the Leftmost Line County Government in its entirety, bound up in a retinue of three huge tracked vehicles, would thunder across the entirety of its jurisdiction in what I felt was a hopelessly Shango-like form of vulgarity.

The Rush was apparently necessary for the simple reason that, if we caught someone outside of the towns and villages, they might have requested our services. This struck me as incredibly unlikely, but then again, I suspected that my attitudes would have been disregarded as those of some stuffy bureaucrat. Which is all very well, but if you ever asked me (which people didn’t), then efficiency had to count for something. Even in a world of plenty, time charges on like The Rush, unheeding of us not making the best of it.

Actually, I guess what really bothered me, despite the Grab systems and their tendency to compensate, was when one third of a municipal government caught some air. As it crashed down again, I’d still feel it, and sense the rumble, and – well, I suspect some of my colleagues would have accused me of cowardice, but frankly I couldn’t see the joy in what was going on.

Of course, I complained about that, but what made me leave the service was something worse than that. Sometimes there’s a threshold to the ugliness you can deal with in a world, and in the end, I moved away from the Ringrail 1 Project and, for my services, I got a spot on Spaceplane 114,098, for which I’m very grateful. You can’t argue with being a mere three parsecs away from the capital and in a Kaizener-friendly area, which the Project (or at least, the Leftmost Line County) never was, necessarily.

Not to mention that I’m now pretty far away from the issue.

2

gpeo220 was one of the largest cities in the County, which for a stretch of land several thousand kilometres wide and hundreds of millions of kilometres long was quite an achievement. Of course, no Qareen likes to live in some vast, scrunched-up hive, so this meant that it was still only around three million in population, but even so, it meant that we got enough requests ahead of arrival to need to stop and have a proper town-hall meeting.

We stopped on the town’s Muncipal Boulevard, an ultra-wide street that cut through the middle of the city like a guillotine blade had slammed down from space to produce the schism. All major settlements had such a street, but in this case, we could draw out a crowd of thousands. The actual attendance turned out to be in the hundreds, but even so, it was always sensible to have the spare capacity; sometimes, these meetings could gather pace across the city through word-of-mouth, and then the crowds would swell to tens of thousands, stretching back down the boulevard for several kilometres.

It turned out that there was, for ninety per cent of the meeting on that boulevard, only one topic at hand. Apparently, the planetary issues in the Intersection Zone that occurred at the time had captured the local public’s interest, and they want to know, demanded to know, damnit, whether we had committed anything. We had, but no personnel – only ships and equipment, and the AIs to pilot them crudely into the battlespace, and none of the ruling had come from our personal jurisdiction anyway, so it wasn’t like the finger-pointing could wind up in our direction.

Obviously, if the ball hadn’t been in our court, they couldn’t blame us – but then, they didn’t especially want to, anyway. With no lives being risked, the populace seemed reassured. With that, the crowd dispersed and, after tackling some minor and specific issues – there was always someone who asked about infrastructure or constitutional reform, or something esoteric like that, and no answer was likely to completely satisfy – we moved on again.

3

The land was flatter outside of gpeo220, consisting of a long series of plains and the occasional knoll or wood that could easily be steered around. Of course, the drivers decided that, for maximum efficiency, it was best to do this at the latest possible point, and so some terrifying driving ensued; these government vehicles had the suspension of sports cars (on tracked vehicles, no less) and the engines of starships. I wish I was joking about that last part, but the drives were genuine downscaled versions of what powered the Ringrail Project’s recently deployed Nemesis/Antipode/Doppleganger/Evil Twin.

Even so, we got no requests from most of the villages we passed before the next stop, which wasn’t unusual – the kind of people who lived in Qareen villages were usually, I tended to find, fairly autonomous people anyhow, who didn’t necessarily want big communities and huge issues. I also regarded them as a little insular, too, which is why I chose a bigger town on 114,098, but maybe that was just my opinion.

After several weeks, during which even the larger towns hadn’t pinged us, we received requests from a small village up ahead, pet9. It was approaching sunset; the artificial sun band itself was starting to pull away from us as it raced overhead, and if we stopped, it would almost certainly disappear, its terminator sweeping past us and casting us into night.

The village itself was tiny – there was no boulevard, and so we had to pull aside and find somewhere to hold the meeting. Given the numbers, it was a safe assumption to think that the whole village would turn out, and as I scanned the village from my third-floor vantage point, I could see a centre circle, an almost tribal touch, that suggested an excellent place for a forum.

4

pet9’s villagers were largely looking for healthcare advice. This was technically something they could find out themselves, but doing so could take expertise that not everyone in the village necessarily possessed, and so here we were, dispensing advice and inserting the right spellings or pronunciations into the assemblers. Being a village, this obviously didn’t take long, and given that these people had waited for the council to show up, it was clear that few of their injuries or illnesses were serious, and those that were happened to be recent.

Once again, we got miscellaneous questions; someone wanted to ask about the military deployment, which was lucky as we obviously had the form answer for that. Little had happened in the war, so far as we knew, in the days since the city visit at gpeo220, so there was little else to add to it; and luckily, we’d heard nothing about our own deployment being destroyed.

Someone else asked about constitutional reform, too. There always seemed to be someone who did, and I often wondered about it – there seemed, constantly, always, persistently, someone, somewhere, who wanted to change the constitution of either the Leftmost Line County or the Ringrail 1 Project as a whole. It was inexplicable; I was reminded of old Qareen conspiracy stories where what the secret organisation had been plotting would backfire by having no impact whatsoever.

Certainly, deep in a shadowy underground lair somewhere, a group of people were presumably planning to have one person in every settlement ask about the bloody constitution.

 

5

We carried on again. This time it was through desert, although I could never exactly understand why we needed so much of it on an artificial world, nor why we had to go through it when there was surely no-one here – indeed, our population records suggested that even hamlets were minimal in the region, and none had pinged anyone for years. A better region for teleporting through, I was sure we would never find, but that wasn’t what we did anyway and The Rush continued.

To be fair, it was probably because I never understood why we didn’t do things differently that made me leave, ultimately. I just couldn’t understand the lack of teleportation, or the need for The Rush, or why the Project was built, or… well, we’re slowly coming to that.

The next place was a small town of around four thousand or so people, and around fifty had pinged us.

6

The issue this time was education. The Department of Education, anywhere at any level of Qareen government, was not a huge department; mostly it consisted of advisors and lawyers, a combination that I thought of as potentially toxic but which often seemed to work. Education was largely an autonomous affair; what the government handed down was a huge database of knowledge – the Qareen database – that represented pretty much everything that anyone knew. The exceptions, of course, were things the government classified, and the human database, which was an irrelevance unless certain jobs were taken.

Advising them was a simple but lengthy matter, and given that it was not my area of expertise, it meant that I was hanging around, doing very little for most of it. I made my way up to the sixth floor balcony and found that I was able to look out across most of the town, and view its patchwork of rooves and irregular threads of streets. The boulevard itself was a highway pointing out past the deserts we had crossed, this town, fed030, being on the edge of them, and towards what looked like a range of flattened mountains, the passes being unnaturally wide and the drops being close to the horizontal. It was, in essence, a mountain range that frankly insulted any would-be climber, who could happily stroll to the summit of any of them without any trouble; of course, for The Rush, it was perfect, and I made the confident (and subsequently proven correct) prediction that my colleagues, or at least most of them, would love it.

7

Over the mountain pass, the tracks on the vehicle came into play, and the Grab systems swung their vectors several times for every second that the machine containing The Machine moved forward, or for that matter, sideways, diagonally, or upward, or downward.

But even those systems couldn’t entirely compensate for the movement, even as they cut in picoseconds after each change of direction; changing the force around could only happen so quickly, and so I found myself stumbling a little each time, or feeling a rumble through the floor.

“What’s going on down there?” I muttered to myself on more than one occasion, and wished that the next destination to ping us would arrive soon.

But of course, it was the next destination that made me quit.

8

The town was called Pillstown-in-the-Twist, which was the kind of human-aping name that annoyed the fuck out of every other Qareen, but never stopped the occasional settlement in a trillion across the Confederacy from doing it. In this case, it was, of course, named in part due to its positioning, at the exact point where the Ringrail 1 Project started to twist through 180 degrees, and The Rush would begin to occur on the other side of the ringworld.

That, though, was irrelevant. What was important was that we were previewed with hundreds of pings – an unusual level of interest – but met by only one man.

#Jang8, local chief of police,# he introduced himself laconically, #so glad you’re here.#

#Where’s everybody else?# our team leader asked. Having the six of us meet him felt like overkill, until he explained the issue.

9

#What we’ve got is this sudden crime epidemic. We’re literally only a few kilometres from the edge of the Ringrail, the most westerly point for millions of kilometres. And what that means is that we’re the perfect place to commit a certain crime.#

#Murder?# I asked.

#Kinda#, he replied, #they call it “edge-junking”#.

He waved away any further questions and threw up an animated projection. The crime was surprisingly simple, beyond a certain point; after hacking through a section of force field, the victim was thrown over the edge. The Grab forces at that point were very ambiguous; as a result, the victim would fall down the edge, until the halfway mark, when counteracting forces would pin them to the centre. Left alone, such an individual would inevitably be able to call for help, so the next part of the crime was necessary to finish the job. This time, debris, detritus and various assembled parts would also be thrown off the edge, only with accelerated force – perhaps fired from a large cannon. This would kill the victim, but not before causing serious injury.

#Sometimes#, Jang8 explained, #they’ll carry on. Some of the bodies we’ve come across have been unrecognisable; we’ve had to check against databases, tracking logs and the like and find out who’s gone missing to get any kind of idea.#

I continued to look at the animation as it played again, and showed the exact same scenario once more. I could only feel a numbness; I imagined that if I allowed myself to feel anything, it would have been too much. I wondered what kind of sociopaths, or monsters – but then again, mental illness was a historical thing. It couldn’t be that driving the phenomenon.

Jang8 seemed to know what I was thinking, and signalled to me alone.

#They’re not mad, these people. They know exactly what they’re doing, and besides, you know, and I know, that we cured mental illnesses thousands of years ago. Incidences are rare, and they’re environmentally caused. No, sir, what you are dealing with here is a mental state we can’t cure. Never, ever, underestimate pure hatred.#

Around me, others seemed similarly shaken, although they got on with the work, and so did I – looking through the reports, classifying them according to similar properties – although all of them seemed to be largely the same story, over and over, as if the same perpetrators had committed these crimes. There was always, in each individual incident, one victim, even if incidents occurred very close together, such as within a tenth of a day – as if the whole thing was operating on some kind of production line. And the victims were not always from Pillstown-on-the-Twist; in fact, such victims were in the minority, as were victims from Leftmost Line. Theoretically, if my suspicions were correct, and it was all the work of a single organisation (this later turned out to only be partly true, but the impact was the same), then who knew how far this organisation went? Would a wrong glance in a bar somewhere a million kilometres away, result in this?

So that’s when I left. The exact point, in fact – I handed in my resignation before the next Rush started. And now, well, I’m happy here. I’m secure.

Although, I still wonder sometimes.

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